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If you’re not aware of animator Will Vinton’s filmography, there’s a good chance that humming a few bars of Heard it Through the Grapevine will conjure up images of the anthropomorphic California Raisins, who went from being a PSA to becoming a huge merchandise commodity, incorporating computer games, albums, t-shirts and even a syndicated Saturday morning cartoon show. That’s big money, right there. Unfortunately for Vinton’s employees, who worked tirelessly to animate the musical dried grapes, their boss didn’t negotiate a better contract. As such, all the profits went to their client, California Raisin Advisory Board.

This is just one story of several in Claydream, directed by Marq Evans (The Glamour and the Squalor), which shows Vinton’s passion for animation overshadowed by his business aptitude. Wait till you hear about his story with the then fledgling company, Pixar.

Started prior to Vinton’s death from blood cancer in 2018, Evans interviews his subject and various employees about the journey from being a fledgling animation studio running on good-will, to being a slightly bigger animation studio running on good-will.

For Vinton, the goal was to be the Walt Disney of Claymation – just take a look at that company logo! – to the detriment of everything else. Not in a bloodthirsty, cutthroat kind of way though. Vinton is portrayed as a man who was perpetually hopeful to the point that if things weren’t going too well, it was best to just ignore it till it fixed itself or went away. Something his ex-wife testifies to on behalf of herself and his first wife. Oh, and there was that one time his first partner in crime, with whom he won an Oscar, threatened to assassinate him.

Working solely in clay, Evans suggests there was a myopic view of Vinton’s work by the public and entertainment industry. Vinton wanted to experiment with his art, pushing it beyond the limited scope of Gumby. However, his first foray into feature films, The Adventures of Mark Twain, despite all its surreal scenes sure to terrify the young, was pushed as a family film. A family film with warnings that it might be too full-on for the kiddies. Unsurprisingly, it tanked.

Vinton was seemingly too innocent for a world that was becoming increasingly monetised and business-oriented. As Evans charts the ‘rise’ of Vinton’s success, he cuts back and forth to the legal case between the claydreamer and Nike CEO, Phil Knight.

Knight saw Vinton’s studio as a profitable investment and became a shareholder in 1998. Unbeknownst to Vinton, Knight soon began buying out other shareholders before finally introducing a clause into his contract which gave the majority shareholder the right to fire Vinton from his own company.

Evans uses footage from the legal dispositions and, to paraphrase The Simpsons, if you pause it just right you can see Vinton’s heart break as he realises the world around him is collapsing. Knowing that Knight’s power grab, and putting his son Travis on the board of directors, led to Laika Studios, will certainly sour Kubo and the Two strings for many.

At its heart though, Claydream doesn’t mourn a talent, but celebrates it. Punctuated with clips from his work, Vinton’s employees have nothing but good things to say about their boss. Even if his contracts with them weren’t legally binding to begin with, they can’t fault someone for wanting to maintain the joy he got from animation. You just wish someone had tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, ‘Will, don’t forget to employ lawyers.’

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Space Jamming

We speak with live action actors Sonequa Martin-Green and Don Cheadle about their roles in Space Jam: A New Legacy, and of course, working with LeBron James.
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Space Jam: A New Legacy

animation, family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

There are big shoes to fill, both literally and metaphorically, when taking on a Space Jam sequel.

The beloved ‘90s flick is, for many, a cherished piece of nostalgia that not only amplified the reputation of basketball superstar Michael Jordan but brought Bugs Bunny and his wacky Looney Tunes comrades back into the mainstream.

Now, twenty-five years later, director Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip, Night School) dreams in vibrant-colour and feelgood splendour in the LeBron James (also a producer) lead standalone sequel, Space Jam: A New Legacy.

We learn from the get-go that James has worn the expectation of greatness since childhood. Whether from his mother or coach, the payoff brought on from hard work and dedication is not lost on him. Alas, it is a bittersweet farewell to childhood (RIP Gameboy) and all of the activities that, despite bringing joy, are but distractions for James on the path to excellence.

A brief montage highlighting James’ decorated career brings us to present-day Los Angeles. We now meet a dedicated entrepreneur, philanthropist and family man who despite his immense wealth, still carries with him a studious work ethic that he enforces upon his children, particularly his youngest son Dom (Cedric Joe).

Unable to accept Dom’s passion for making video games, opting to have him focus instead on basketball, James must reckon with his beliefs. It is a feat that materialises physically as James and Dom are tricked into entering the Warner 3000 Server-Verse, a digital universe composed of beloved Warner Bros. IP, by a megalomaniac and shimmeringly dressed A.I., Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle, a delight).

Now a hand-drawn being, James is transported to the dysfunctional Looney Tunes world and must reunite the estranged Tunes (a highlight overloaded with fun references to other properties) to defeat Al-G and his team of monster creations in a game of basketball. To lose would result in James’ imprisonment and the deletion of the Looney Tunes.

Had the trailer left you worried A New Legacy would be a busy explosion of Warner Bros. IP fighting for attention, audiences need not fear. Their presence, in large part observed as characters on the sideline, offers both chuckles and a fresh take in showcasing the Tunes brand of animated dysfunction. (We are not quite watching ‘Ready Player LeBron’ but it would not be surprising if Warner Bros. were working on a live-action adaptation of The Iron Giant.)

What is most thrilling about A New Legacy is the liveliness of the worlds created, with each destination carrying with it a varying style of animation that brings with it added freshness. The key standouts here being the 2D elements, a polished homage to the Tunes origins, and the sleek CGI designs of the basketball duel which, along with the bass-heavy soundtrack, plants the series firmly into 2021.

Character-wise, James and Joe’s relationship feels real, even if the script haphazardly dives too deep into the conventions of sports-drama/family storytelling. These bumpy bouts of dialogue, often feeling like cliched pep-talks, remain fleeting, and are often diffused by humour brought out in a solid voice-cast that brims with personality (albeit the occasional Happy Gilmore impression ringing through).

Given the long stint between Space Jam films, it is tricky to predict what is next for the series: Will James return? Can a sequel work with other sports? Will it be a generational thing? Whatever the case may be, if the antics are as good as they are in A New Legacy, this certainly won’t be all, folks.

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Monsters, Inc – The Next Generation

Twenty years after Billy Crystal and John Goodman – as their not-so-scary animated monster alter-egos Mike and Sulley – discovered how laughing kids create ten times more energy than screaming kids, the lovable furry duo return with their own ten-part series, Monsters at Work.
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Josee, the Tiger and the Fish

animation, Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Receiving a live action adaption back in 2003, author Seiko Tanabe’s classic short story Josee, the Tiger & the Fish finally gets the anime treatment thanks to animation studio BONES, the team behind the wildly popular fantasy series My Hero Academia, Fullmetal Alchemist and the sci-fi Eureka Seven.

First published in 1984, the story follows the tumultuous relationship between Tsuneo, a hapless college student with a passion for diving, and a young wheelchair bound woman, who calls herself Josee, after a character from her favourite novel.

Hoping to make extra money for a diving trip, Tsuneo reluctantly takes a job as Josee’s caretaker, instantly butting heads with his opinionated charge. But as the two eventually find common ground, a romance blossoms, opening up both their worlds and forcing each to re-evaluate their future perspectives, and their complicated relationships with those around them.

While it’s easy to write the anime off as a simple teen romance, reducing the film to such a simplistic genre note would be an injustice to a charmingly realised fable.

Under the guidance of director Kôtarô Tamura, who makes his animated feature debut, JTF has been crafted into a touching, and at times heartbreaking film laced with genuine comedic moments. While the pacing of the film is a little inconsistent, lagging in places, his fully-realised characters, laden with emotional coming-of-age angst and dysfunction, manage to carry the story forward.

As for the animation itself, BONES has delivered a beautiful feature that brings to mind the work of Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children) and early Ghibli films, with rich warm skylines, vibrant cityscapes merged with dreamlike oceanscapes, colourful faux lens-flares and domesticated action sequences that glide across the film’s instrumental soundtrack.

While all of this creates a wonderfully engaging film, JTF gains authenticity thanks to its representation of Josee’s condition. Confined to a wheelchair since birth, her journey as the film’s antagonist is grounded in frustration and anxiety, and doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of being disabled in a big Japanese city – in this case, Osaka. Albeit, the film could have honed this into a sharper social commentary, but Tamura-san’s restraint feels like an obvious choice.

While Josee, the Tiger and the Fish will be a no-brainer for fans of anime, it does deserve a wider audience, if not just for its charm and vibrancy, then perhaps because we could all use a good love story right about now.

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Spirit Untamed

animation, family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Last seen galloping freely amongst the North American wild in 2002’s remarkable Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, the world’s favourite honey-coloured mustang, Spirit, makes his big return in CG form in Spirit Untamed.

In the film, gone are well-crafted hand-drawn visuals and the existential poeticism of its predecessor. Instead, first-time director Elaine Bogan favours doll-like animation and well-trodden themes of girl-power “you-can-do-it-isms” that rival Barbie in terms of corporate pep.

Rather than keep Matt Damon on the payroll to narrate a profound introspection on the beauty of freedom (that Spirit is lost somewhere in the Cimarron), we have headstrong youngster “Lucky” Prescott (Isabela Merced, Dora and the Lost City of Gold) taking the reins as lead. Her story, involving the reconnection with her absent yet over-protective father, Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal), lacks any sense of distinguishable flare.

She travels far and wide with a crew of fellow tween activists on a mission to thwart local bandits (Walton Goggins serving as the film’s intentionally under-developed, old-West big baddie, Hendricks) who have captured Spirit’s herd.

Lucky’s relationship with Spirit follows that of other Dreamworks fare, with a potential reworked title of ‘How to Train your Stallion’ feeling better suited.

When the film does tackle themes of animal liberation, it does so in contempt of court; providing mixed messages around free-range living amidst the backdrop of a rodeo. Youngsters in the crowd may find themselves asking their parents why the other horses don’t dream of the same wide open plain living that Spirit does; a retort parents may struggle to find an answer to.

Yes, if you can look past the film’s ties to the original, there is an empowering and positive energy that will resonate with the littlies for which the film is targeted at. For Spirit purists, this film is worlds apart.

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Lupin the Third: The First

animation, Asian Cinema, family film, Home, Home Entertainment, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Remember when an action-adventure film would actually deliver a fun, entertaining romp without the existential angst or deadpan violence? Well, thankfully Lupin the Third: The First has landed to remind us of what good old fashion action-adventure movies can be.

The latest big screen adventure of the titular Monkey Punch creation, Lupin the Third: The First marks the first time the franchise has received full CGI treatment, delivering a beautifully rendered world where its cast of rogues feel completely at home within some remarkable action sequences, exotic locales and an impressive English language dub.

For those unfamiliar with Lupin III, pronounced as a solid French Lu-Pon, the Japanese series has been running since 1967 across a number of mediums including print, animation and live action Japanese films. Created by manga artist Kazuhiko Kato aka Monkey Punch, the story follows the illegal machinations of the grandson of famed French gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, made famous in a series of French novels by Maurice Leblanc. And while the licensing rights, and subsequent lawsuits to the characters are something of legend in Japanese publishing, The First offers newcomers a relaxed, enjoyable introduction to the franchise’s key cast of characters while managing to pay reverence to long time fans, and the Parisian origins of the series.

Set during the 1960s, The First is at heart a heist film, setting our anti-hero Lupin III against his nemesis Detective Zenigata, a naive young officer with a hidden agenda named Laetitia, and a cult of Nazi zealots, all seeking to possess the fabled Bresson Diary; a heavily booby-trapped mechanical book thought to reveal the location of an ancient Aztec weapon known as The Eclipse.

Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, whose credits include the Always: Sunset of Third Street trilogy and Parasyte films, The First plays like an authentic ‘80s action-adventure film, offering fans of the genre a familiar cocktail of Indiana Jones, Connery era James Bond and Spielbergian adventure. All of which is complimented by a strong English dub helmed by professional voice actors Tony Oliver (Lupin III) and Laurie Hymes (Laetitia) who imbue their characters with charm, humour and when necessary a perfectly balanced sense of gravitas.

Visually, Lupin the Third: The First delivers a solid CGI experience; while not completely on par with the likes of The Adventures of Tintin, the final product is none-the-less entirely absorbing, crafting a fun urgency to the many raucous chase scenes while the cataclysmic effects of the film’s ultimate McGuffin, The Eclipse are brilliantly effective.

While it may not have the exposure that a Pixar or Disney film might attract, Lupin the Third: The First certainly deserves a look. It goes without saying that it’s been an exhausting year, and if you’re looking to indulge your nostalgia of more relaxed times, or simply looking to educate your kids on what movies use to feel like, then embrace a little cinematic self-love and take yourself, and the family, to the see Lupin the Third: The First in cinemas.

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Trailer: Space Jam – A New Legacy

In a nostalgia-fuelled pop cultural landscape that we live in, 1996's Michael Jordan-starring Space Jam is fondly remembered (even though it's a pretty dire film), so here's a reboot/sequel/whateveryouwanttocallit starring Lebron James, directed by Malcolm D. Lee (um, Night School) and produced by Ryan Coogler (co-written by his brother Keenan Coogler).